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The debate over the Upper Kotmale hydro electric project continues. Waterfalls or electricity? A seemingly impossible choice. The project, if completed will result in Sri Lanka's second largest hydro driven power plant generating 150 MW- a dire need at present.
But the price the country is asked to pay for these precious units of electricity is indeed great. Three of the best known waterfalls along frequently travelled up-country routes will be drastically affected by the project. These are the Devon and St. Claire waterfalls on the Hatton- Talawakelle road and what most people view as Ramboda fall -which is really two falls, Puna Oya falls and Gerandi ella- on the Kandy- Nuwara Eliya route. Several other smaller falls will disappear completely.
The project which was conceived some two decades ago has continuously attracted opposition because of this waterfall factor. The initial proposal was to have two ponds- small reservoirs - on two locations at Caledonia and Talawakelle. This would have, according to the feasibility report generated 248 MW of power.
But the repercussions were large scale. The number of families to be evacuated was over 2000 and the waterfalls were as good as gone. Later on, sensing that public opinion would certainly be against any total abolition of the picturesque falls, the plan was watered down to the present Upper Kotmale Hydro Electric Project.
The proposal submitted by the Ceylon Electricity Board envisages damming the Kotmale Oya, before it meets up with Devon Oya to make the Mahaweli ganga. A 38 metre dam just below the Talawakelle town will create a small pond fed by some 23 km of tunnelway running from various streams around the area. The sources of water for the pond include the Kotmale Oya, Devon Oya, Puna Oya and Pundalu Oya. After the generation of electricity at the underground power house in Niyangandora, the water will flow into the Kotmale reservoir.
The controversy over the project rages on because of the effect this stream-tapping will have on waterfalls and several communities that are presently living in the reservoir location. The Devon and St. Clair waterfalls which are considered among the most beautiful of the country's large waterfalls will suffer drastically if the project is implemented. Gerandi ella will not be affected but Puna Oya will be reduced by 70 percent. Ramboda proper will be reduced by half and certain other falls like St. Clair minor and St. Andrews will disappear altogether.
Because of these adverse effects the first Environmental Impact Assessment for the Upper Kotmale Hydro electric project was rejected by the Central Environmental Authority. Their contention was that the CEB and the consultants to the project had not paid adequate attention to the alternative locations for the ponds and sources of water.
The recent power crisis that the country underwent, the pressing need for electricity coupled with the fact that this is the last available large scale hydro electric resource, brought the project back into the limelight. The CEB having completed their study of alternatives presented it to the CEA again in April this year.
Actually there was only one alternative that was worth the indepth study. Called the Yoxford Option, this proposal was to dam Pundalu Oya and save several of the larger waterfalls that are affected. But in their study the CEB and the consultants to the project claim that the Yoxford Option is not a realistic alternative. They state that the dam location of that option is not suitable for various geological reasons.
In September this year, the CEB resubmitted their original proposal to build a 25 hectare pond draining the water sources of the falls amidst protests from the environmental lobby. At present the project is being studied by a technical committee, appointed by the Central Environmental Foundation. The project was open for public appraisal for 30 days and now the country waits with bated breath for the CEAÕs verdict on the Upper Kotmale Project.
If the project receives the go-ahead this year and gets off the ground, it is scheduled to be completed in five years time. The CEB has already secured $ 293 million for the project in the form of a 30 year loan from the Japanese (OECF) Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund.
"We can recover the cost of the project in 15 years," Savindranath Fernando, Deputy General Manager, Planning at CEB said. " Estimates show that hydro is still the cheapest source of electricity. A unit of hydro electricity generated from Upper Kotmale will cost Rs. 1.65, while a unit generated using coal or other sources will cost Rs. 5-6."
Although convinced of the project's feasibility, the CEB is aware of the environmental damages, Fernando said.
"We are doing our best to ensure that the waterfalls are not eliminated completely," he claimed. If the project goes ahead, several mitigational measures would be implemented to see that the falls do not disappear completely. The 281 foot Devon falls will still get 30 percent of its peak flow, which would vary according to the season. In the rainless months it could thin to a trickle and at monsoon time overflow. But daily for 10 daylight hours, the fall will have continuous water supply- however diminished. The position of St. Clair's is slightly different. The fall will be fed half an hour for every hour for ten daylight hours. A very scenic fall at Pundalu Oya will be spared because of the tiny devale beside it. The project plans to pump water up from the bottom of the fall.
The project will also uproot some 432 families from their present dwelling, the site of the proposed pond. CEB officials said that the families were identified and will be given land within a two kilometre radius of where they are presently located. "We will ensure that they will move into better houses than they are living in now," Fernando said. Of those affected, 250 families are living in estate line rooms at the moment.
But unfortunately there appears to be a dearth of communication between the CEB and the people who are living in a state of uncertainty. Those living on rent or in line rooms welcome the chance to move. But others who have reasonably good houses are understandably reluctant. "We have not been told where we will be relocated to," Jayantha Peiris, a long time resident of Kumaragama, Talawakelle said. "There is nothing definite. We donÕt like to move out of town, as we have lived here for several generations now."
Mrs. N. Ahmed said that she will only move if the CEB will give her a house similar to what she lives in now. "There are six people in the family and we have built up this house. We need similiar facilities to move."
Hemantha Withanage, spokesman for Environmental Foundation Limited, an NGO strongly opposed to the project said that it is upto the CEA to fathom whether the CEB is genuine about their mitigational measures and would carry them out as promised if the project goes ahead as planned.
He accused the CEB of merely trying to justify the project by writing off the Yoxford option as null. "They studied the option in a negative light and not as a potential alternative," Withanage said.
Although not to be disregarded, the human aspect of this problem falters under the weight of the larger environmental implications. Many questions need to be considered at this juncture. There is no doubt that we need the power. But is it worth the investment to generate more hydro - which is not a very stable resource? Is it worth the price of the waterfalls- even partially? Is it the answer that as a developing third world country we cannot afford to make the choice?
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